A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cluck, cluck.

I say goodbye to the two of them at the roundabout.  They pedal away from me, pigtails poking from beneath helmets, little twenty-inch tires churning.  They don’t look back.
As I run up the hill to West Ridge, the road’s shoulder looks narrower than I remember, and the slope seems steeper and longer.  Will they have to walk their bikes, when it’s time for them to find me?  What about the two busy roads they need to cross, both coming and going? Will they correctly calculate what lunches they can purchase with the money I have provided? Do they remember the combination to the bike lock?  How about the location of my new office? What if…
No. Stop. I open the glass doors of the International Arctic Research Center.  I jog up two flights of stairs and around the corner to an office decorated with a medley of artwork from grades K-3.  I fire up my computer.  The kids will buy their sandwiches at the cafĂ© in Gulliver’s Books, I tell myself.  They will peruse a few used paperbacks.  They might count up their change and buy a caramel or two from the alluring box by the cash register.  And then, in two hours’ time, they’ll bike up the hill.  My little free-rangers will be just fine.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve read a lot of articles about “free range kids”.  The term -- and the movement -- was initiated by Lenore Skenazy, the dastardly mother who triggered an uproar when she allowed her nine-year-old to ride the New York City subway alone, and then admitted to it, in print!  In truth, Skenazy is a self-proclaimed “safety geek” who nonetheless espouses the notion that kids are  capable young individuals who should be allowed and expected, when ready, to do stuff on their own.
Now, my own kids are nine.  There are no subways here in Fairbanks, Alaska, but there are other ways for young poultry to spread their wings.  Simply going to the outhouse alone when the thermometer reads forty degrees below zero is a small-scale adventure in self-reliance.  The school bus stop is half a mile from our cabin in the woods. At a campground in Denali National Park last week, I put the twins and a young friend in charge of lighting and tending the fire, then wandered off; when I came back 45 minutes later, they’d not only refrained from setting themselves alight, they’d also baked me a perfect potato.
But Fairbanks isn’t just a place for Last Frontier Style independence; we can also conjure opportunities for retro nineteen-fifties free-ranging, both figuratively and literally.  A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were interrupted in the middle of a carpentry project by a cheerful voice. “Hello! Can you let me know if you see a chicken?”
As a conversational opener, this had promise.  We paused in our industrious hammering of nails into a nascent shed. The speaker, casually friendly on the edge of the lawn, quickly introduced herself as my friend’s new neighbor.  She didn’t seem unduly worried about her missing bird.  “They go wherever they want.  They’re completely free-range.”
The phrase made me involuntarily glance over to where four girls, aged 81/2, 9, 9, and almost 12, were busy constructing mysterious items out of scrap lumber.  One of my twins was really going to town with the cordless drill.  The eldest of the quartet was sweating away with a hand saw. 
The fact that the kids were all in view was unusual.  The pre-teen has been uncaged for some time.  The three younger ones, best buddies, are new to the mean streets – but over the course of the previous two weeks, they had been rampaging around the miniscule metropolis of downtown Fairbanks, undertaking such nefarious pursuits as riding their bikes to a local playground, touring historical buildings, and (horrifying as it may seem) checking out library books.
That’s right: my kids, left to their own devices, went and signed themselves up for the Summer Reading Program.   According to the Noel Wien Public Library Patron Conduct Policy: “…Conduct in the library building or on its premises which may lead to denial of library privileges includes… leaving a child under the age of 9 unattended in the library…" The twins were precisely nine years and five days old, and thus totally kosher, but their scofflaw friend was a mere eight years and seven months.  However, as the more diminutive of my kids noted with undisguised jealousy, “Everyone would totally think she’s nine.  Maybe even TEN!”  Right.  She’s practically ready for a fake I.D.  Or, like, a fake “Raven About Reading” children’s library card.  Don’t tell the authorities.
But, in truth, free-range parenting is not about making your kids into public nuisances, and it’s not about breaking rules; it’s about resisting the urge to make too many of them.  It’s the antithesis of helicopter parenting.   As such, it represents kick-back against what has become the new norm.  Skenazy was called, “The World’s Worst Mother” for letting a nine-year-old loose in New York for an hour – but there was no uproar whatsoever when my dad rode the NYC subway to school alone every day when he was just six.  There was no uproar when I myself was nine, and my mom hung a house key around my neck on a piece of yarn.
Up in my office, I wade through the slurry of emails swamping my inbox.  I battle a spreadsheet into submission.  I quickly rummage for my lunch in the break-room fridge, which is adorned with a discomfiting laminated note reminding everyone to refrain from storing scientific experiments therein.  What are the kids eating down at Gulliver’s? They love taking command of little wipe-off cards that allow them to micro-manage what kind of bread and fillings they prefer.  Toasted or not toasted?  Provolone or Cheddar?  With the shredded carrot?  The spinach?  Oh, the thrill of it!  They can take ten minutes to carefully plan a sandwich. 
Being in control turns the humdrum into an adventure. This piece of kid-psychology isn’t new-fangled.  Classic novels that I’ve passed on to my children over the past couple of years – books by Elizabeth Enright and Arthur Ransome – feature buccaneers as young as six joining older siblings in adult-free urban exploration, rural camping, and sailing.  It warms my heart to see my third-grader burying her nose in a 400-page moldy-looking volume that once belonged to my mother.  That the story in those pages involves bold and unapologetic free-range girls pretending to be Amazon pirates – well, that’s pure perfection.
But those were different times, the protest goes.  The world is so much more dangerous nowadays. Except that, in fact, it’s not.  I had to explain to my kids what “mumps” were, when that disease cropped up in one of the above stories.  I had to define “quarantine”, “coal gas”, “rationing”, and “illegal still”, and explain why the cars had no seat belts and why so many people seemed to be smoking. We’ve made the world a better, safer, kinder, and more equitable place in a lot of ways that matter.  Moreover, crime rates have actually decreased since I was the age my kids are now, when a buddy and I rampaged around our suburban neighborhood on bikes.  The odds have improved.  But, barraged with Bad News TV, Americans tend not to believe this.
Thinking about life choices as some kind of statistical gambling game might seem Machiavellian, especially when it comes to our sweet, darling children.  But if playing the probabilities like a savvy gambler is cold-hearted, it still beats the other option – playing the odds like a clueless sucker. Math matters.
Math.  Spreadsheets.  I glance at the clock.  What if someone sees the twins out there, and doesn’t share my views on parenting?  It doesn’t help that my nine-year-olds look younger than their years.  One of them is barely the size of the average first grader. What if someone thinks… No.  I glance resolutely at my emails again: Climate change scenarios planning…
Scenarios.  My job title and my research group both include the word, so it looms large in my life.  The concept doesn’t apply only to all the ways in which the ice caps might melt or the forests might burn.  The future – anyone’s future, everyone’s future – is a patchwork of possibilities.  Some are far more likely than others.  Some are desirable, some are benign, and some are so horrific that we want to believe that we can dial their risk down to absolute zero. 
Sometimes, we can come pretty darned close.  Don’t want your kid to end up polio-stricken in an iron lung?  Huzzah, there’s a handy-dandy vaccine for that!  But other choices carry heavier trade-offs.  For example, one of the most dangerous things that we Americans allow our kids to do is ride in cars.  We can greatly improve the odds by insisting on seat belts and those five-point harnesses that toddlers love so much.  But if we wanted to eradicate the risk, we’d have to keep the kids out of vehicles entirely, which… yeah.  Welcome to reality.
Oddly, what keeps a lot of kids under the whipping blades of helicopter parenting is not the non-negligible hazard of traffic, but the bogey-man of Stranger Danger. I’ve blogged before about kids talking to strangers. [http://latitude.nancyfresco.com/2012/09/stranger-than-fiction.html]  I’m in favor of it.   I know, I know: the over-hyped news of children-abducted-by-unknown-creeps-or-psychos is scary as hell.  It’s also, with an annual rate of approximately 1.25 per million in the US, mathematically insignificant. 
One thirty.  They’ll be leaving the book store now – if they remember what we agreed, and if they remember to look at their watches.  Two traffic lights.  One roundabout.  And those two awkward three-way intersections protected only by stop signs.  But they know enough to make the right choices.
The vast majority of the time, we are not helpless in the face of a cruel world, and neither are our kids.  It makes sense to talk to children about which potential adult behaviors (even among friends and family… no, given the statistics, ESPECIALLY among friends and family) are iffy, untrustworthy, or downright horrendous.  Wearing helmets and brightly colored clothing and assiduously following traffic rules reduces the risk associated with riding bikes.  It’s also important to teach kids to remain alert to the jack-holes* who are too busy texting to know how to drive. 
The tradeoffs for doing all of the above are… Being dorky?  Having helmet-hair?  I’m cool with that.  But some risk still exists.  The only way to reduce kids-on-bikes injuries to zero is to never let kids bike at all.  This is not a trade-off I’m willing to consider or negotiate. Nor am I willing to tell children to never speak to anyone they haven’t met before. 
The twins’ ninth birthday party occurred on a gloriously sunny day at a sprawling public park (which is named “Alaskaland” if you’ve been in Fairbanks since the previous millennium and “Pioneer Park” if you haven’t).  I interrupted the young revelers in their primary activity (spraying one another with muddy water from the drainage ditch that masquerades as a stream) to send them off on a somewhat quirky scavenger hunt.  Not only did this provide the lingering adults with the opportunity to covertly spike our lemonade, it also gave the kids a chance to accost totally unknown park-goers with odd requests.  “Can you please tell me who was President when you were nine?”  Go learn some history, children.  Also, please talk to strangers.
It’s only a mile or so from the book store to my office, but it’s all uphill.  It will take them a while on those six-geared bikes.  They will press the buttons and wait for the Walking Person.  They will look both ways for the drivers who think that “right turn on red” is one of the Ten Commandments.  Spreadsheets.  Back to my spreadsheets.  They will come back.
Ultimately, the woman with the missing poultry reported that all her free-rangers were accounted for.  Then she invited the human free-rangers to come and visit.  Apparently her birds like hugs.  “And at night, they just kind of pick a tree, and roost there.”  I couldn’t stop myself from picturing four young girls cozily roosting in some kind of homemade treehouse. How much would they love that?
Ping!  A message.  Quickly, I click.
“As I finished crossing the street on today's expedition to Pad Thai, I was accosted by… “
Yeah.  By my children.  
But, connotations of the word “accosted” notwithstanding, this is not a message from Social Services. Nor is it a message from the State Troopers, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, or the FBI.  No, via the sweet serendipity of small-town life, the writer is not only my good friend, but also the husband of my shed-building-partner and father of the twins’ free-ranging, tool-using, library-rule-flouting co-conspirators. 
 … What a pleasure it was to see those strong, independent, skillfully biking young women.”
Young women!  Ha.  On one hand, it seems like a stretch to describe my freckled, scabby-kneed pipsqueaks in such a manner.  On the other hand… growing up is incremental.  That’s the whole damned point, isn’t it? A grin spreads across my face. 
And then, impeccably timed, I hear an ebullient chirrup at my elbow. 
“Hi Mom! We’re here!”
Cluck.  Cluck.  Good little chicks.

*This term was coined by the eldest of the four children featured in this essay.  Her logic is that she cannot get in trouble for saying it, but it’s obvious that it’s a swearword.  I feel that it deserves to be popularized, particularly with connotations linked to use of technology, as in, “If that jack-hole doesn’t put down his phone, this is the last Panang curry I’m ever gonna buy him.”